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Union Square Cafe: Then and Now

Jim Leff | Mar 15, 201711:51 AM

In another thread, Blumie wrote:

Jim, I'd love to hear your view after dining at USC. I've been twice since they've opened, and although I've enjoyed it, I still miss the old place a lot. I suspect that even if the food were identical at the new place -- and I don't think any of us has the skill that many of us think we do to identify it as the same, better, or worse -- I for one loved the warmth and intimacy of the old place, which the new location lacks. It's a beautiful space, with a great Danny Meyer-trained staff, but still it's not the same for me. Maybe it's just the case that today's reality can never, ever match nostalgia for yesterday; maybe it's just an unfair standard to which to hold any restaurant.

Don't doubt yourself. You may not be able to put your finger on it, but I'm sure of one thing after years of talking to many people about matters of taste and shifting restaurant quality: people are more sensitive to changes than they realize.

(But due to self-underestimation, they mistrust their perceptions. This is how NYC slice pizza sank to the level of animal feed in ten years while maintaining traffic. If you degrade something gradually enough, people assume it's "just them", ala "guess I just don't like pizza as much anymore." This also explains the sharp decline of those large-format Pepperidge Farm cookies...we all think they were great once, and perhaps still buy them, but it's all kind of hazy. This also explains how lobsters are cooked ("Carl, am I crazy, or is the water starting to get a bit warm?")).

USC wasn't just another restaurant. It was a unique (and necessary) innovation, adopting a radical credo for its time: that a quality restaurant, in a place where customers are sophisticated about food, doesn't need to clobber customers over the head (via stuffy decor/service, as well as shmancy ingredients/seasonings/presentations) with obtrusive gestures of upscale-ness to justify its up-charge. No need to press status buttons. Just cook and serve the usual stuff really well, and people will pay more, even if their status buttons aren't relentlessly pressed.

USC was just another neighborhood tavern, but one that cooked and served way better than it needed to, with commensurate up-charge. It's a VERY chowhound-ish proposition (though probably not for those who mistakenly visualize chowhounds as bottom-feeding taco-scarfers in shabby raincoats), and it gave the place a certain shimmering glow for people like you and I, and I never expected that special quality to survive the transfer. I haven't been yet, but I assume the new USC is just another perfectly good Danny Meyer joint.

Union Square Cafe
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